Grace Elizabeth King, local novelist and historian, was a devoted champion of New Orleans’ Creole past.
“In a word, we are our past; we do not cling to it; it clings to us.” So writes novelist and historian Grace Elizabeth King in the opening of her memoir, Memories of a Southern Woman of Letters (1932).¹ These words define her career as an early chronicler of the city’s colonial history and a dedicated ambassador of its Creole culture. They also capture the early days of the preservation movement in New Orleans for which King provided so much historical guidance.
Born in 1852 to a wealthy New Orleans family, King’s childhood was marked by the Civil War and her family’s subsequent exile to New Iberia, Louisiana, a formative experience that fueled a literary career dedicated to preserving and celebrating the city’s antebellum past.² An active member of the Louisiana Historical Society and a founder of Le Petit Salon, a literary club that began on St. Peter Street in the Vieux Carré in 1924, King wrote prolifically about New Orleans’ illustrious Creole families and the city’s colonial origins with a novelistic flair that brought her subjects to life.³
Among her best-known historical works are the exuberant New Orleans: The Place and the People (1895), which documents the city’s history from the sixteenth-century discovery of the Mississippi River through the end of the nineteenth century, and Creole Families of New Orleans (1921), a valuable genealogical resource for such early New Orleans families as the Marignys, the Pontalbas and Almonasters, the Boulignys, and the Pitots, among many others.⁴ Additional works include a biography of the city’s founder, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville (1892), and history books for school use, in addition to several novels set in nineteenth-century New Orleans that provide a telling if fictionalized glimpse of daily life during that era.⁵ In recognition of her influential literary career, in 1915 King was awarded an honorary doctor of letters from Tulane University and, in 1918, she received the Palmes d'Officier de l'Instruction Publique from the French government.⁶ Her works have informed a century of local historians and continue to be an important resource for architectural research relating to the city’s colonial architecture and its inhabitants.
1. Grace Elizabeth King, Memories of a Southern Woman of Letters (New York: Macmillian Company, 1932), 1.
2. Mary Ann Wilson, “Grace King,” in Louisiana Women: Their Lives and Times, edited by Janet Allured and Judith F. Gentry (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009), 137.
3. Mary Ann Wilson, “Grace King: Le Petit Salon and the (Secret) Business of New Orleans Culture,” Louisiana Cultural Vistas 21 no. 2 (Summer 2010): 88-89; and Mary Ann Wilson, “Grace King,” in KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson (Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–). Article published June 3, 2011.
4. Wilson, “Grace King,” 147; and Grace King, Creole Families of New Orleans (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1921), xi-xiii.
5. Wilson, “Grace King,” KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana.
6. Wilson, “Grace King,” 150; and Louisiana Historical Association, “Dictionary of Louisiana Biography: Grace E. King.”
Suggestions for Additional Reading and Research
Bush, Robert. Grace King: A Southern Destiny. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.
Grace King Papers, 1906–1920. Louisiana Research Collection, Tulane University.
King, Grace Elizabeth. New Orleans: The Place and the People. New York: Macmillan, 1895.
_____. Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1893.
Petit Salon Records. The Historic New Orleans Collection.